Recognition of emotional facial expressions in anxious and nonanxious depression

Compr Psychiatry. 2016 Oct;70:1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2016.06.007. Epub 2016 Jun 14.


Background: Anxiety and depression have each been independently associated with impairments in emotional face recognition. However, little is known about the nature of these impairments when anxiety and depression co-occur.

Methods: This post-hoc analysis evaluated the relationship between anxiety status and performance on the Emotional Expression Multimorph Task within a clinical sample of individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD).

Results: Participants with anxious depression (n=14) and nonanxious depression (n=14) completed the Emotional Expression Multimorph Task. Those with anxious depression required greater intensity of emotion to identify both happy (p=.01) and sad (p=.04) facial expressions than those with nonanxious depression. Severity of anxiety also correlated with greater intensity of emotion required to detect sad faces. Contrary to prediction, hypervigilance to angry and fearful facial expressions was not observed in anxious depression.

Limitations: The present study did not include an anxiety-only group for comparison, and did not assess state anxiety at time of administration. In addition, the extent to which the experimental task correlates with social functioning is not fully understood.

Conclusions: These findings suggest a diminished sensitivity to happy and sad facial expressions specific to anxious depression, but not a hypervigilance toward threatening facial expressions. Further research on the nature of emotion recognition in anxiety and depression may inform improved clinical interventions.

Trial registration: NCT00088699.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Anxiety Disorders / complications
  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / complications
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / psychology*
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Recognition, Psychology*
  • Young Adult

Associated data